BROOKE GLADSTONE: Umberto Eco is most famous in the United States for his engaging and challenging novels like The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum. But among his "day jobs" Umberto Eco is actually an accomplished media critic as well as a professor of semeiotics, a historian of medieval theology, the author of more than 20 books of non-fiction and a columnist for the Italian weekly Espresso. He is Italy's foremost public intellectual and an insatiable consumer of all things media, and since he happened to be in New York this week, we invited him to our studios to chat about whatever he wants. Umberto Eco, welcome to On the Media.
UMBERTO ECO: Hi. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let me read you a quotation from a lecture that you gave about the role of the press. You said "once the press has demonstrated its self-flagellating impartiality, it no longer feels any interest in reforming itself." Now this program, On the Media, we take it as our job here to criticize and analyze the media, but are you saying that basically what we're doing is just giving a sort of a moral pass to all the people we bring on who say yes, we did wrong -- therefore you can't criticize us?
UMBERTO ECO: No. I, I am convinced that media criticism is indispensable. As you said, I have a column; I devote my column frequently to the criticism of newspaper and of magazines. Sometime of the same magazine on which I write. I publish it, [LAUGHS] and I keep going in the same, in the same way. Okay. That's, that is the, the, the risk between-- silence and what Marcuse called "repressive tolerance." [LAUGHTER] Well, better the repressive tolerance that [sic] absolute silence. Right? [LAUGHTER] On the Pravda it was impossible - not even to criticize the video. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now actually bringing up Pravda, you famously suggested that the Sunday New York Times is not that different from Pravda during Stalin's time. What on earth could you possibly have meant by that.
UMBERTO ECO: No, it, it, it was the, the abundance of information can-- become no information at all. I simply said that the Sunday New York Time has more or less in the good seasons 600 pages; one week is not enough to, to read all the 600 pages -- so such an enormous amount of information equals-- nothing. Like the Pravda, [LAUGHS] which had no information. Oh, but it was-- a paradox.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But to say that there is too much information implies that one is incapable of making a choice. When I get the Sunday New York Times I dump the section on automobiles and real estate and the want ads--
UMBERTO ECO: Yes--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- and I go to the Week in Review and the daily news section and the Arts and Leisure and I have a nice Sunday afternoon's read and I haven't taxed myself too much. I've simply made a choice. Why can't they do the same thing?
UMBERTO ECO: But you and me, we know how to make a choice -- until a certain point, but we, we had a university education. I mean that today a lot of people is in the position of having more information than, than before, but they are not educated to make a choice! It's, it's a very difficult problem. Don't ask me the recipe for, for solving it. I am neither an oracle nor a preacher. But I think is the educational problem of our time. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Let me ask you another unanswerable question. The question of Berlusconi [sp?] who owns I would say the majority of the Italian media. Is it possible to get a straight and honest account in the Italian media these days?
UMBERTO ECO: Imagine: that President Bush is the owner of NBC, CBS, CNN -- of 80 percent of Hollywood --of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post -- of all the Macy's chain and probably of a good part of Microsoft. Would you consider that an acceptable situation for a democracy? It's a new invention -- it's the corporation-government -- a government that thinks that what is good for the corporation is good for the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that's a terrible threat or do you think that the media really can't control how people think?
UMBERTO ECO:Obviously the concentration is a great risk but there is a sort of inner anti-virus. When the concentration is very big, it's difficult for the owners of the concentration to control every aspect, so in, in a way there is a sort of biological ability in reacting to the injection of dangerous viruses.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What infuriates you most about the media? What would you change?
UMBERTO ECO:A typical feature of Italian newspapers, not happily of the American ones, is that if there is an important event -- well, let's say recently a mother allegedly killed her son. They devote to the event 4 pages with 6 articles, but I admit that since Hegel said that reading newspaper is the everyday prayer of the modern man -- when having my coffee I enjoy this stupid activity of reading-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Each and every one.
UMBERTO ECO:-- 6 time s--the same, the same story because it's, it's relaxing. So we are all responsible. The possibilities of doing different exist but probably we would refuse that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So to review: you don't think that media criticism has any effect; you, you think that the corporatization of media can't be stopped; and you yourself can't stop reading the sorts of sensational stories that are emblematic of everything that's wrong with the media--
UMBERTO ECO: No, but there is this - the virtue of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy was thought to be a great homage to virtue. [LAUGHTER] Hm? You are a sinner. But you have the duty of saying that that is wrong. [LAUGHS] [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
UMBERTO ECO: Thanks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Umberto Eco is the author of over 20 works of fiction and non-fiction. His new novel, Baudolino [sp?], will be published in an English translation this October.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, foreign relations and public relations and why songs like Wipeout are locked out of the airwaves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from National Public Radio.